Ben Bagdikian saw the crisis of journalism coming, and he knew that this would be a crisis for American democracy.
He knew that monopolization of media ownership would create a top-down form of communications that empowered elites, that would invite manipulation, and that would starve voters of the information they needed to be their own governors.
He also knew that the changes would dramatically undermine the role of journalism in a media system where commercial and entertainment demands replaced civic and democratic values.
Bagdikian, the Armenian-American immigrant who became one of this country’s great journalists and then the greatest media critic of his time, has died at age 96. He lived long enough to see the decline of journalism and democracy that he had predicted play out in a politics that was as cruel and dysfunctional as he feared. Yet he never hesitated to remind us that we have the power to reform and renew not just journalism but governing systems that are supposed to draw their authority from the people.
Those of us who have built our own critiques of contemporary media upon the foundation that Bagdikian provided with his 1983 book, The Media Monopoly, have always recognized that the genius of this Pulitzer and Peabody Award-winning journalist was not in his charting of the steadily increasing control of communications by a handful of conglomerates. It was in the understanding Bagdikian provided about the danger that was inherent in allowing the dominance of the discourse by a handful of wealthy and self-interested corporations. As Andrew Hacker observed in his review of the first edition of The Media Monopoly: “Thus the real thesis of The Media Monopoly is that the United States has become a corporate state, with its own ‘Private Ministry of Information and Culture’ (Mr. Bagdikian’s phrase) intent on erasing the capacity for discerning thought.”
Many debated Bagdikian’s conclusions, and there are still fabulists who imagine that a new age of click- and rating-driven communications somehow provides Americans with a range of digital and cable TV options that will avert “the Orwellian perils envisioned by Mr. Bagdikian.” But serious observers of the American circumstance will recognize the clear and present dangers of a moment, as Bagdikian observed in the introduction to The New Media Monopoly in 2004. With the consolidation of definitional control over communications into the handful of enormously influential media giants, he noted, “this gives each of the five corporations and their leaders more communications power than was exercised by any despot or dictatorship in history.”